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The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra opened its season Saturday night with a return visit by the 28-year-old violin virtuoso Augustin Hadelich, who had appeared with the orchestra in the Beethoven concerto two years ago. This time he gave a brilliantly executed performance of Lalo's "Symphonie Espagnole." Hadelich performs with a minimum of flamboyance and with a remarkable purity of tone. Even when the orchestra's fortissimos might have overwhelmed a lesser soloist, his every nuance could be discerned.
What delighted this reviewer even more, however, was the sterling performance of the orchestra throughout the evening. Under music director Philip Mann, the Arkansas Symphony is no longer just a good provincial orchestra. It has become an outstanding regional ensemble.
The concert opened with Richard Strauss' tone poem "Don Juan." I have heard it played by major orchestras from Boston to San Francisco, but I have never heard a better reading. Certainly, Mann gave the work a personal interpretation. I may have found the brass a bit heavy, as was the percussion throughout the concert, but that is a matter in the conductor's domain. But in the Strauss the strings were beautifully coordinated, and the several rather difficult solos in it were flawless, as were the solos in later works.
The other piece on the program was one I had never heard before, Dohnanyi's "Suite in F-sharp minor." It is seldom performed, but seems to be seeing a renaissance. At least two major orchestras have programmed it for 2013. Written in 1909, it is a bridge from late romanticism to early modernism. Not great, but very pleasant to hear. The humorous Spanish segment in the final rondo was a neat foretaste of the Lalo to come. And in the Lalo, the orchestral dynamics were outstanding.